Movie review: “Rover” a gritty dystopian tale that doesn’t get its motivation

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From the June 19, 2014 edition

One of the first signs you’re a movie geek is when you start fanboy-ing over a director. If more casual fans follow movie stars, we follow movie directors. It’s the first name I check on the fine print of a movie poster. We get our hopes up — and get let down — based on a director’s previous work.

Australian writer-director David Michod made a promising debut with 2010’s “Animal Kingdom,” a gritty crime drama in the vein of “Goodfellas.” It had its flaws, but it also had hallmarks of future greatness.

Michod’s long-awaited follow-up “The Rover” holds a lot of promise, which tends to magnify its flaws unfairly. There’s a lot to love, but it’s still not the greatness I had Michod pegged for.

An opening title card sets our scene as “Australia ten years after the collapse,” a reference that remains generally unexplained but seems to point to an economic collapse that has left this a lawless land.

Eric (Guy Pearce) is a rugged, quiet denizen of this dystopia who goes about his business until three roving thugs steal his car. Then he wants his car back.

The quest for said car leads to crossing paths with a manchild named Rey (Robert Pattinson) who is connected to the thugs.

For much of its first half, “The Rover” cruises on grit and atmosphere. It’s gorgeously shot, and there’s an underlying terror in its no-rules setting. Michod hammers home the stakes with punctuations of violence.

Ultimately, however, I struggled with the mysteries of what was motivating these central characters. Eric’s quest to retrieve his car becomes a violent obsession, and it might be nice to know what all the bloodshed is for before the end of the film — a reveal I found to be a bit of a cop-out.

Nonetheless, Pearce (“Memento”) is a perfect fit for the brooding lead, alternately stoic and explosive. And Pattinson (yes, of “Twilight” fame) is surprisingly good as a hillbilly with a low IQ.

“The Rover” works better as a character piece, but I still say movies’ primary function is storytelling, and that’s the biggest flaw of “The Rover.” I still see a truly great film in Michod’s future.

Photo courtesy of A24 Films